Gardens for all

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The transformative impact of suburbia on the British landscape between the wars is often viewed in negative terms. But the development of the suburban garden is indivisible from the wider cause of providing green open spaces for the inner-city poor.

A new housing estate, 1930.
A new housing estate, 1930. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Behind the Privet Hedge: Richard Sudell, the Suburban Garden and the Beautification of Britain, Michael Gilson, Reaktion Books, £16.95

Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, Grace Hannam, a Methodist missionary to the poor of London, moved from the West London Mission at St Pancras to the Bermondsey Settlement, another progressive, not to say idealistic, social outreach project south of the river. As her possessions were being carried into her new flat in Bermondsey, a crowd of curious children gathered. They were particularly taken by the sight of Hannam’s large wooden window boxes. ‘There’s five cawffins just gone up,’ one shouted in gleeful horror. ‘Five!’

It tells you a lot – perhaps everything you need to know – about the living conditions of working-class inner London in the 1890s that its children were more familiar with small wooden coffins than with window boxes. In parts of Bermondsey, infant mortality was nearly twice that elsewhere in London; five times as many children died of measles and three times as many people died of respiratory diseases.

For social reform campaigners, these slum areas – death traps and fever dens, as one described them – demanded a range of radical solutions to alleviate suffering: better sanitation and housing, most obviously, but also healthcare and education. But, as Michael Gilson reveals in Beyond The Privet Hedge, they had another weapon in their armoury too: beauty. Indeed, in 1920 Bermondsey Borough Council went so far as to establish a Beautification Committee, chaired by Ada Salter, a member of the more-socialist-than-thou Independent Labour Party.

The committee’s slogan was ‘Fresh Air and Fun’. Its goal was to identify areas that could be planted with trees, shrubs and flowers – no easy feat in a borough dominated by wharves and warehouses in which residential density climbed towards 100 people per acre. Old churchyards were a prime target: old gravestones were cleared to create flower gardens or children’s play areas; streets were lined with trees; window boxes were installed.

It’s easy to miss the political radicalism in all of this: the rich had access to natural beauty, why shouldn’t the poor? Beauty wasn’t merely a palliative; it was empowering. There is an ethical, almost utilitarian component to the case for beauty, and no-one was a greater advocate of that than Richard Sudell, a largely forgotten garden activist and landscape architect, whose life forms the spine of Gilson’s narrative. ‘Beauty is one of the greatest forces in the world,’ Sudell wrote. ‘It is the power which can move mountains.’

Sudell, like many of those involved in advocacy for green urban spaces – whether privately or publicly owned – came from a radical religious tradition, in his case the Quakers. The son of a hay and straw dealer, Sudell was born in Lancashire in 1892. He left school at 14 and got his first job as an apprentice in the garden of a local mill-owner. By the time war broke out in 1914 he was working at Kew. His pacifist conscience would see him sentenced three times to long periods of hard labour during the war, including spells in solitary confinement, living on bread and water.

Afterwards, Sudell, a man of gentle but relentless perseverance, came into his own, either founding or working for a plethora of organisations, such as the National Gardens Guild, the Prison Gardening Association, the Institute of Landscape Architects and the National Playing Fields Association. He wrote for or edited numerous publications, too, among them the Daily Herald, Ideal Home and Practical Home Gardening, producing hundreds of articles and some 47 books, including the Town Gardening Handbook and Landscape Gardening.

Sudell’s work rate was prodigious, a mark of his passion and zeal for greenness. It was as a horticultural journalist and writer, however, that Sudell likely made his greatest mark – Gilson calls him ‘one of the most influential British garden journalists in the early twentieth century’ – but this in some ways points to the reason for his neglect by history. While he was a tireless campaigner for beauty everywhere in the public realm, from airfields and petrol stations to playing fields, motorways and prisons, Sudell was also a great advocate for that most despised of things, the suburban garden.

If Beyond the Privet Hedge is in part a biography of Sudell, then, it is also a defence of suburbia in general and suburban gardens in particular, spiced with occasional dashes of polemic against modernist architecture and the baleful influence of Le Corbusier on post-war Britain. These are the most interesting and entertaining sections of the book.

The transformative impact of suburbia on the British landscape between the wars is often viewed in negative, not to say hostile, terms. It was seen as eroding the necessary distinction between town and country – a distinction seemingly most keenly felt by those wealthy enough to have homes in both. Organisations such as the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England sprang up to combat its noxious spread.

As Gilson notes, those two decades of expansion added some 500,000 acres of new garden to the nation. It is easy to forget that the new suburban homeowner started with a blank canvass of mud and clay left by the property developer; it was a rare chance for those not born to privilege ‘to create their own homes, their own space and make a mark that says: this is mine’. Gilson cites approvingly Judith Roberts’ contention that this represented ‘one of the greatest opportunities for individual cultural expression of the twentieth century’.

Suburbia provoked a horseshoe theory-like response among the architectural cognoscenti: the preservationists and the modernists were united by their loathing of it. Clough Williams-Ellis, probably best remembered now as the architect of the Italianate oddity that is Portmeirion in north-west Wales, damned suburbia’s ‘mean and petty houses that surely none but mean and petty little souls should inhabit with satisfaction’. The architectural writer and broadcaster Geoffrey Boumphrey, meanwhile, who envisaged London as a modernist city of high-rise blocks, fulminated against its ‘spattering of nasty, pseudo-hygienic little houses’. As Gilson notes, such invective is easy to laugh at; but the power held by postwar planners and architects who shared Boumphrey’s vision made ‘many lives miserable for generations to come’.

Sudell, though, understood the emotional necessity of privacy. If, for some, the privet hedges that guarded the front gardens of suburbia were markers of snobbery and petty-minded conservatism, Sudell recognised them as a boundary, the place where refuge began: ‘the real purpose of a garden’, he wrote, was ‘to give rest and quiet after the turmoil of the day’.

At times, Behind the Privet Hedge gets a little tangled in minutiae; we learn a lot about the internal politics of the Roehampton Garden Society, for instance. And the narrative sometimes moves uncertainly between the need to reassess the importance of Sudell’s career and its wider exploration of attitudes to gardens and landscaping in the middle decades of the 20th century. Overall, however, it is a thoughtful and provocative defence of both Sudell’s work and the small private Edens of suburbia.

For Gilson, as for Sudell, the development of the suburban garden is indivisible from the wider progressive cause of providing green open spaces – children’s play areas, allotments, parks – for the inner-city poor. Each in different ways provided people with ways to respond personally to the ‘powerful, perhaps even primeval, pull that the canopy of open space, colour, scent, weather and seasonal rhythm had on people in Britain, across all economic classes, in the first half of the twentieth century’. Surely, given that an estimated 84 per cent of Britons live in suburbia, it still does.


Mathew Lyons